5 Ways to Build Lasting Mental Toughness

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This article first appeared on Happify.com

Life is strange. It seems to have a mind of its own. Things happen over which we have little control, and just when we think we have everything planned out, it throws us a curve ball. We scramble around, spending much of our time trying to channel that ball into a direction that suits us.

But the reality is that despite our best efforts, there’s not a lot we can do to change the things that are beyond our control. When our efforts don’t pay off, we get discouraged and blame the universe for our woes. Not that this helps! Life is unbiased, after all, and couldn’t care less how we manage the curve balls it throws at us.

But we do. We have dreams for the future and goals that align with it. We need to let go of the tame-and-blame strategy we are pursuing and invest our energy in controlling our reactions instead. We need to find a way of adapting our course despite the uncertainties of life.

This is called mental toughness. The ability to take a deep breath, immerse ourselves in the experience whether we like it or not, and start doing what really needs to be done. The good news is that it is these very moments of adversity that lead to growth and upward spirals of increasing resilience.

So when the going gets tough…

Give Yourself a Hug

Most of us begin an avalanche of self-criticism the moment things don’t go according to plan. Phrases like “You should’ve done this”. “You can’t even do that”, “If only you had…”speed through our minds and we end up feeling totally useless and dejected. Research shows that if we were instead to come from a place of self-compassion, where we recognize the difficulty we’re facing and give ourselves the reassurance that we’re there for ourselves, we will find the strength to forge ahead and do the right thing.

Keep Your Eyes on the Goal

Knowing what we want is the single biggest predictor of success. And yet, many of us are not very clear about it. Psychologist Heidi Halvorson, who studies the science of motivation, says that it is by writing down what we want, visualizing it in our minds, and planning the steps we need to take to craft our journey and overcome the obstacles along the way, that we stay realistic, persistent and resilient towards long term goals. Otherwise, we fantasize immediate results and give up the moment we come across hurdles and short-term distractions that are a natural part of every endeavor.

Celebrate Past Successes

The human brain evolved to look for threats to its survival. As such, negativity and failures loom large in our minds and get imprinted into our so we can avoid similar disasters in the future. But in a world where real danger is minimal in comparison to the hunter-gatherer era, our pre-occupation with the negative can blind us to what is positive and good in us. In order for our goodness, efforts and successes to go down into our long-term memory so that we feel confident approaching our goals, we need to spend some time thinking about positive experiences and savoring them in our minds all over again.

Talk Positively to Yourself

Self-talk is largely subconscious—and yet very powerful, all the same. Just like the inner critic can beat down on us when we fail, it can also talk us out of taking steps toward our goals. “C’mon, there’s no way you can do this”, “Look at her, she’s way better”, “Seriously, let go before you make a fool of yourself” are all thoughts that preoccupy us when we’re about to approach something important. Remembering that self-doubt is the weapon of the ego, and talking positively to ourselves for our willingness to take calculated risks despite the possibility of temporary failure, is essential in order to bring our full selves to life.

Take Action

This is the final but most crucial step in building mental toughness. Unless we take action towards our goals, we’ll continue to live in a delusionary world, yo-yo-ing between narcissism and depression. Action is the result of accepting responsibility for our lives rather than distributing blame. It is about committing to what we believe in despite external pressures that try to pull us away. And it is about believing, like Roosevelt, that “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…”

In the end, it is worth mentioning that mental toughness is not about rigidity towards our goals. It’s about being fully immersed in the situation and thus adapting to changing circumstances. Like a tree that finds strength through the depth of its roots and the suppleness of its branches, we build mental toughness through commitment to long-term goals and flexibility in our journey towards them.

Now it’s your turn: what are the challenges that come up again and again for you? And what are the strategies that help you rise above them?

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